Try to define “irreverent” and you’ll come close to some of the terms that describe Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman.
Quick-witted, funny and sometimes almost counterintuitive, Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill, a spiritual leader at Brith Sholom in Erie, a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now and, as he proclaims in his curriculum vitae, the owner of both a misdemeanor conviction for protesting white supremacy and a turtle named Lefty.
Now, Goodman, who lives in Squirrel Hill with his wife Noa and their two children, has a book that matches his unique voice: “Life Lessons From Recently Dead Rabbis.”
The book, subtitled “Hassidut For The People,” harkens back to Goodman’s days in rabbinical school, when he discovered the untranslated texts of Hasidic rabbis, most from the 18th and 19th centuries. To fully understand the texts, Goodman said, it helps if the reader is well-versed in Talmud, Kabbalah and Midrash.
“It was very psychological and very personal,” Goodman said. “Hassidut is the attempt to personalize and make incredibly relevant all of the Bible.”
He started a class on Hassidut texts at Congregation Beth Shalom that was thwarted largely by the pandemic in 2020. But he soldiered on, and found himself writing miniature essays in response to, or as a kind of comment on, some of the texts.
“I wrote 10 chapters without telling anybody,” he said. “Then I turned to my wife one day and said, ‘I think I’m writing a book.’”
The book is distinctly Goodman-esque, with Talmudic readings from Hasidic masters set alongside lyrics from rappers the Wu-Tang Clan. He even drops the F-bomb a few times.
“That’s never happened in a Hasidic text before,” he laughed.
“There are some brilliant rabbis out there (doing Hassidut), but they went to Ivy League schools and listen to Mozart,” Goodman added. “I’m not built like that. I listen to hip-hop. I play basketball in the park … I’m just not built to be stuffy.”
Rabbi Seth Adelson, with whom Goodman works at Beth Shalom, likes it that way. Adelson said he’s proud of Goodman’s accomplishment in publishing the book.
“These texts truly energize him, and we are thrilled that the energy with which he has infused the Beth Shalom community for the past few years is now available to the general public,” Adelson said.
Part of the zeal behind “Life Lessons” also comes from Goodman’s life experience. Goodman previously lived in the Denver area, where he served as the rabbi and director of Judaic studies at Denver Jewish Day School from 2012 to 2017 and as rabbi at Har Mishpacha in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, from 2014 to 2018.
When one of his work contracts was not renewed, his wife took a physical therapy job in Pittsburgh. He followed.
“When we moved to Pittsburgh, I wasn’t doing really well. I was in a tough place a little bit,” Goodman said. “My ego was bruised and so was my self-confidence.”
Time has helped heal those wounds. It’s also helped that his first book was published by Bayit, which was founded in part by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, a noted author and Jewish thinker known as “the Velveteen Rabbi.”
Barenblat has nothing but good things to say about Goodman’s unique book.
“What drew me to the book is the balance between respect and honor for the tradition on the one hand, and holy irreverence and wry wit on the other,” Barenblat said. “Mark takes Hassidut, and the deep spiritual potential of this Torah, very seriously. But he doesn’t take himself seriously. He’s willing to be real with us about his spiritual struggles and how they might map to our own.”
Barenblat called the book “a powerful tool for integrating Hasidic wisdom into the fabric of our everyday lives.”
“I hope it will reach people who would never have picked up a leather-bound all-Hebrew tome,” she laughed.
Goodman is hoping for the same thing.
“I would say the book is for a lot of people — I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone,” Goodman said. “Some people will say it’s too irreverent. Some will say it’s too touchy-feely.”
But Goodman believes the book is ultimately a product of his self-styled, authorial voice.
“Ten years of writing soccer articles was good for this book,” he said. “It was a good process, it was a good part of the learning process.”
There also was healing. Two survivors of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting took Goodman’s class in Squirrel Hill; he wrote one of the chapters in his book about them.
“To be part of that process after the shooting,” Goodman said, “it was an extremely powerful experience for me.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.